Tag Archives: research

Scientists’ View of Humane Science

Image by mensatic via morguefile.com

Image by mensatic via morguefile.com.

If you are interested in how scientists are currently viewing animal-based research, there is a free online course available, taught by employees of Johns Hopkins University (one of the big animal research “players”), Alan Goldberg and James Owiny.  The course is called Enhancing Humane Science – Improving Animal Research.  It is sponsored by the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, which sounds great until you realize it’s also part of Johns Hopkins.  This course is absolutely not in any way unbiased.  Johns Hopkins has a lot of big stakes in animal-based research.

I’ll admit I haven’t listened to the whole course yet, but it reeks of the stuff I had to read while working in animal research.  It appears to be a pretty accurate picture of the scientists’ point of view concerning animal welfare.

I’m not defending or attacking anybody here.  This mess, and my opinion of it, is too huge and complicated for me to summarize it in one journal post.  But if you were looking for a good introduction to how scientists look at animal research, and where they are coming from when they say, “But we are doing everything we can for the animals in our care,” this is where a lot of them are standing right now.  The jargon and the general attitudes are appropriate and seem pretty representative.

They aren’t cackling and rubbing their hands together, drooling over the prospect of thousands of dead mice.  On the other hand, these animals routinely undergo experiences we would not inflict on our pets.

DIY Mad Scientist Kit Only $99.99

There’s a viral video going around of someone playing “Insane In The Membrane” through the chromatophores of a squid, causing a pretty visual effect.  I’m sure the squid would have been thrilled to know it was sacrificed in the pursuit of such valuable knowledge.

There is a very real possibility that the squid was alive for this “experiment”.  There’s no indication in the video itself, and I can’t find research by the lab (run by Roger Hanlon at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA) which describes its preparation of squid fins for such video, but here is another video by the same lab, which purports to be of “live squid skin closeups” and shows extremely similar footage.  Is anyone else watching the “Insane” video and seeing a live squid being electrocuted so that someone can watch pretty colors dance to Cypress Hill?

Photo via mjas on morguefile.com

Hanlon’s lab is doing actual research on squid coloration and how the animals use color for visual communication; the company responsible for the frivolous “Insane In The Chromatophores” video is called Backyard Brains, and bills itself as “DIY neuroscience for everyone“.  This makes me nervous.  On the one hand: encouraging kids to think about science and to play with the world: this is good.  On the other hand: encouraging kids to rip the legs off live cockroaches to demonstrate neuron activity…”Don’t worry, they can grow back“?  Really?  Their newest “experiment” is the RoboRoach, which encourages kids to wire live roaches up to little electronic control units and steer them around.  I’m speechless.

I’m all for teaching kids science!  Learning is valuable and education is vital, and hands-on experiments are great for getting kids involved and interested.  But…surely there is some other way to demonstrate this phenomenon?  Even if the insects are, as the authors claim, anesthetized, and the hands-on research really does “increase understanding of neuroscience concepts“, what is this teaching kids about treating animals as things whose needs do not matter compared to ours?  How long until little Bobby wonders if the cat also twitches when you wire him up?

Favorite sentence: “It’s very important to avoid anthropomorphizing the cockroach with thoughts like ‘If I do not want my own leg cut off, then the cockroach does not want its leg cut off.'”

That makes it all terribly convenient, doesn’t it?  The cockroach doesn’t care about the loss of a leg in a way it can communicate to us (or in a way that we care to receive), therefore it just doesn’t care, and therefore we can just lop the leg off a cockroach whenever we like, to show kids things about nerve conductivity.  Even if it is valuable science — maybe we could just do this once and then share the video?  We could set it to Cypress Hill.

Online Learning Tool: Animal Ethics Dilemma

While searching Amazon for more books to eat, I found a mention of a free “online learning tool” called Animal Ethics Dilemma.  It presents five case studies (focusing on the use of genetically modified animals, specifically monkeys, in research; the welfare of farmed chickens; euthanasia of aggressive pets; rehabilitation of wildlife; and slaughter plants) and provides various ways to explore the issues presented by these situations.  It encourages the user to  consider various response options to potentially real-world situations.

Overall, it’s well put together.  It does a decent job of introducing five broad areas of animal welfare.  The exploratory answer options tend to be a little fixed — the tool is trying to introduce the user to five (debatable) points of view (“contractarian“, “utilitarian“, “relational“, “animal rights” and “respect for nature“) and, instead of allowing freeform answers, the tool forces you to choose between five fixed answers, each representing one of the categories.  I don’t honestly believe that any one of these viewpoints is entirely right in all situations, but the division helps to simplify the problems a bit for initial interpretation.

You do have to create a username and password to use the thing, but it’s free, and it never asks for any personal information.  It’s designed to let you create a profile of yourself before experiencing the tool, and compare it to a profile of yourself after working with the tool.  It’s interesting, and it’s not preachy.

For what it’s worth, I personally figure as highly “utilitarian” and “animal rights”.

Animal Capable of Human Speech is Remembered for Smoking Cigarettes

Various news sources are telling me that a “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee” passed away on Saturday, December 10.  The name of the chimp in question is Booee (or Booie), and this immediately pinged my memory: was that not the name of a signing chimp — one of the chimps that researcher Roger Fouts communicated with while he was raising Washoe, arguably the most famous of the signing chimps?

Image from Wildlife Waystation Facebook

I wasn’t hallucinating.  Here’s a link to a heart-rending little scene from the book Next of Kin, where Fouts describes meeting Booee again after many years apart.  And that’s the same Booee, a lifelong lab animal, unwilling participant in probably several dozen experiments until being briefly featured on a television show made him less than political to keep.  He was moved to the Wildlife Waystation in California in October, 1995.

This particular chimpanzee could speak to humans.  He used sign language to do so, but he could do so — one of the first of a tiny wave of “animals” which could speak a human language.  He was part of the community that helped open the door between humans and their closest cousins, the great apes, and helped to start the (still ongoing) movement which is trying to get chimpanzees out of the laboratory.  He is part of the snowball that started the avalanche of things like the Great Ape Protection Act, which would have been unthinkable when Booee was born.  This guy is one of the founders of a little, slow, quiet revolution in the way humans think about animals.

And something like 90% of his obituaries say “he was on television once”, “he smoked cigarettes”, and “he begged for candy”.  Why are those chosen as his defining attributes?  Are they just the only ones the news outlets think we’ll understand?  Booee is a historical figure.  He did a lot for animal/human understanding and the promotion of the idea that animals are not just automatons with fur.  It might be hard to encapsulate the meaning of what he was, what he did and the way he changed the world into a blog-sized sound bite, but “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee”?  Is that all we can come up with?

I know that the news media are just trying to garner readers, and that “cigarette smoking chimpanzee” probably: a) resonates better for most people than does “signing chimpanzee” and b) is “cuter” and more “sound bite friendly”.  But please — is that the only thing you can think of to say?  (Here’s the Wildlife Waystation obituary for Booee, in case you’d like to see how to do it with class.)

Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

Rat freeing a trapped cagemateSo the current journal-article meme floating around is a little study by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago investigating “the origins of empathetic behavior”.  (Link goes to UChicago press release; here’s the NPR article; and here’s the full article as published in Science.)

It’s actually a pretty well-designed study, although, as someone who has actually performed path-following research on rats and as a former pet rat owner, I’ll have to take issue with describing moving off the walls of that “arena” as “scary”.  Neither rat in the video seems particularly perturbed.  This is likely a consequence of the fact that laboratory rats are not “natural” rats and haven’t been for a very long time — they are in fact a domesticated rat, bred (intentionally or inadvertently) over thousands of generations to deal well with human handling and the laboratory environment.

As thrilled as I am that scientists are even starting to consider the possibility that animals have empathy (or “homolog[s] of empathy”, or whatever animals are allowed to use in order to make their feelings seem less important than ours), much less run actual research to prove such theories to others, it irks me that people feel research even needs to be done on this point.  The whole argument for using animals as “models” for humans is that they have similarities to us.  If rats have limbs and organ systems and neural constructs similar to ours — as scientists do keep arguing, as otherwise rats would not be such “good animal models” for human disease, behavior, and physiology — why would they not have a feeling mechanism much like ours as well?

My question here: You’ve just proven that rats are social creatures that feel for each other and exhibit both altruistic (opening the cage does not necessarily benefit the free rat, although the argument can be made that freeing the trapped rat reduces the free rat’s own stress) and empathetic (opening the cage seems to involve a recognition that the trapped rat is less than happy) behavior.  What behavior will rats have to exhibit before you realize they are living beings with thoughts and feelings, and stop breeding them by the billion for dubious research?

(The short-story writer in me immediately comes up with a premise: someone proves conclusively that rats have feelings and emotions, and someone else says “Hey, now I can experiment on their minds!” and starts running experiments trying to replicate depression and suicide in rats…oh, wait, that’s already being done….)

Home Sweet WTF

“The goal of managing any mouse colony … should be to maintain adequate numbers of animals in as little shelf space as possible….”

Husbandry protocol, University of California, Irvine

The image to the right is of a standard laboratory mouse cage.  This is considered a pretty cutting edge mouse habitat these days.  The unit is actually fairly airtight — the blue and red things are valves through which air enters and exits the chamber when the cage is inserted into a “ventilated rack system” (described below).  These cages are designed to work with the rack system keep the environment the mice are in separate from the outside environment, usually by running any air going into or out of the cage through a replaceable HEPA filter in the top of the cage (not visible in the picture).  This keeps immunocompromised mice from getting sick, and keeps lab workers from catching anything the mice might have.

According to the manufacturer’s web site, these palatial enclosures have 75 square inches of floor space.  That might sound like a lot, but that translates to about 7 3/4″ wide by 12″ long in a cage 6 1/2″ high — about the size of a sheet of typing paper.  (The cages are commonly called “shoebox cages” for a reason.)  That measurement also doesn’t count the intrusion into the living space of the enormous food hopper, under which the mice must squeeze to get from one side of the cage to the other.  These cages are of course perfectly within guidelines for the absolute minimum space requirements per adult mouse.  (Here is an amusing page comparing mouse cage sizes to human equivalents.)

Generally, facilities limit the number of adult mice in such a cage to five, which works out to fifteen square inches of space per mouse — the size of a three by five index card.  In practice, these cages are often far more full even than this.  For example, breeding colonies often keep two adult females with an adult male and, either through protocol or lack of finesse on the part of the researcher or technician, may allow the resultant litters to remain in the breeding cage until they are weaned at about 21 days.  At left is an image of a 21-day-old mouse next to an adult.  Average litter size for a laboratory mouse is between 6-8 pups (although as many as 20 can be born at one time).  Imagine the cage just before weaning, with three (or more!) adults and potentially more than twenty “pups” that are fully half the size of the grown mice.  I have picked up cages in which the bedding was not visible through the mass of mice inside.  They do make larger cages which can be used for breeding, but these require more space, are more difficult to change and sterilize, and are more expensive to purchase, and are not always used.

Here is a photo of a ventilated rack system made by Allentown, Inc., a primary rodent housing supplier.  These racks are, again, the cutting edge for keeping a lot of mice in a very small space.  Previously, mice were placed on shelves on rolling racks; in this technologically advanced age we have perfected a model for keeping mice in almost the absolute minimum space possible.  These racks hold 100-200 cages apiece, with a single “standard” size mouse room able to potentially hold three to twenty racks.  I worked in a facility which had six 150-cage racks in a single room (one of many mouse rooms).  One technician was assigned to oversee all 900 cages in this room.  How diligent do you think that person could be when inspecting individual mice (remember, 1-5 mice per cage, potentially 4,500 mice in this room) for disease?

The boxes on top of the rack are the intake and exhaust blowers, which force air through the system and keep the rack either positively (no outside germs get in) or negatively (no inside germs get out) pressurized.  Although all cages receive equal amounts of fresh air (at 40-60 full air exchanges per minute, it must be like living in a wind tunnel), light is definitely in short supply down on those bottom racks.  The techs I worked with used to carry flashlights to see the bottom rows.

Note that there aren’t actually laws dictating minimum required living conditions for mice and rats.  Rodents are not covered under USDA regulations (which is one reason they are so popular as laboratory animals).  “Minimum living space” for mice and rats right now is “whatever we want it to be”.  Currently, more or less voluntary standards for this are set by the laboratories themselves, under the guise of the National Research Council, which could be considered to be just a bit biased in favor of the scientists.  There is a voluntary system of conforming to these standards via accreditation, but no federal agency is involved in enforcing them.  In fact, here is a page wherein the federal government is currently busy trying to buy a rack with even smaller (61-square-inch) cages for its own use.

Glow F**k Yourself

Photo via http://kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com/kidsnews/2009/05/glowing-animals-gallery.htmlI believe that, at this time, we have mastered the technology of making glow-in-the-dark animals.  First there were the glowing mice, then the rats, the commercially-available atrocity the “glo-fish“,  Alba, the glowing rabbit who was also an “art installation”, pigs, and a whole host of other critters, and now, apparently, we have the glow-in-the-dark beagle.

What our intrepid scientists are doing, really, is stuffing extra genes into an animal to see if they can.  (Yes, that’s apparently all the justification they need.  They probably put the word “cancer” in the grant application, though.  You never know, this might be it!)  When scientists want to swap a gene from one organism to another, they choose to transfer a gene which makes the target animal, which ordinarily does not glow, produce a glowing protein.  They do this because that kind of thing is really easy to spot and doesn’t require complicated blood testing to see if it’s taken hold.  If the resultant animal glows, voila! — you have successfully transplanted a gene.

Why do they feel that making more glowing animals is necessary at this time?  I think we’ve passed the point of “required replication” of that original first experiment and entered the world of “unnecessary duplication of results”.  We’ve been shuffling genes around for years, as evidenced by that impressive list above.  We’ve even done beagles before, in 2009.  I think we’ve certainly seen that “we can” make glowing animals.  Now that “we can”, what are we doing with this amazing new technology?

To quote from the beagle article:

“[ByeongChun] Lee said the genes injected to make the dog glow could be substituted with genes that trigger fatal diseases. He and his team would then be able to chart the course of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more, better understanding how such diseases develop.”

It is fascinating how that paragraph doesn’t say, “The creation of transgenic beagles will allow us to give laboratory dogs a whole host of genetic diseases they don’t normally get, so that we can study how those diseases affect dogs, as if that were somehow relevant to how they affect people!

Yes.  The whole point of this ludicrous enterprise is that eventually, we will have man-made “animal models” for diseases that animals don’t normally even get — as though studying how these transplanted diseases behave in their new, unnatural hosts will tell us a damn thing about how they behave in humans.  We have reams and reams of evidence — including some generated from actual scientists doing animal-related experiments — that animal and human systems are not identical, and therefore we cannot extrapolate directly from one to the other, and here these people are, wasting time, money, and animals on making more animals to chew through while flailing helplessly in circles blathering about how they can cure cancer if only they can grind up a few more mice.

Ever notice how none of the articles point that out?  None of them say, “This will allow us to kill hundreds, maybe thousands, more dogs every year while searching for cures for human diseases.”  It’s always “Ooh, look at this adorable puppy — which may be a cure for cancer!

Am I saying that we should never, ever investigate recombinant DNA?  No.  Am I saying that perhaps we should think about using our newfound power of shuffling genes about to create hardier or more fruitful food crops that could feed impoverished nations, rather than new “animal models”, “designer fish” and “art installations”?  Yes.  We do not need to learn to cure artificially-induced Alzheimer’s disease in dogs.  We need to learn to cure it as it occurs naturally in people.

“We have learned well how to treat cancer in mice and rats but we still can’t cure people.”

– Professor Colin Garner, quoted in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

I love science.  I love learning new things, and exploring new ideas.  I understand that we can learn things from animal research we cannot learn anywhere else.  This?  This is a grotesque parody of research.  This is an absolute waste of funds.  There are human-based studies at my local VA hospital desperate for funding to help wounded veterans overcome combat injuries.  There are developers who could really use grants to help design new prosthetic limbs.  Why are we wasting money on this?

But ooooh, lookit the cute glowing beagle!

Euphemisms

Making it even harder to figure out what exactly is actually going on, people keep using obfuscatory words to make sure nobody knows what they are talking about:

Research:

  • lab animal – “animal model”, or even just “model”, “organism”, “subject”
  • monkey, ape, chimp – “nonhuman primate”
  • cage – “housing system”
  • euthanize – “terminate”, “cull”, “cut from the study”  (They’re actually even trying to stop using “euthanize” now, because it’s such a “charged word”)

Meat Industry:

  • killing – “stunning”

(Note: this is just a list of ideas to which I intend to return later.  Additions are welcome.)

So Much To Write and So Few Pages

One thing learned from the initiation of video auditing on a large scale is that some people should not be handling livestock. — Temple Grandin

I recently picked up a book about slaughterhouses, and have had my hair standing on end reading it, realizing how much that process is like the processing of laboratory animals that I experienced.  I want to say more about that — I have a lot to say about that book — but in the meantime, I was doing some background research on the book itself and ended up on the web site of Temple Grandin, a PhD who has dedicated herself to improving the welfare of animals in slaughter plants, with some hopeful results.

Since the book I am reading was written in 1997, I skimmed Dr. Grandin’s web site, which had some up to date slaughterhouse audits (as recent as 2010), to see how things might be going nowadays.  Apparently they are now employing video monitoring in slaughter plants, which, depending on how exactly that is achieved, and who exactly is doing the monitoring, is a huge step forward for the conditions of both animals and humans there.  However, if the quote above is anything to go by, conditions haven’t really changed all that much since the book was written.